Brain Boost from Exercise: Feel-Good Hormone

A study exploring the mechanisms behind why cognitive performance improves in response to exercise, has found that dopamine plays a key role.

The neurotransmitter and hormone — which is tied to pleasure, satisfaction and motivation — is known to increase when you work out.

New findings suggest it is also linked to faster reaction time during exercise.

The researchers behind the discovery say it could lead to a new therapeutic pathway for cognitive health, because of dopamine’s significant role in several conditions including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, ADHD, addiction, and depression.

They measured the release of dopamine in the brain using a sophisticated scanning device, known as a positron emission tomography (PET). It tracks the metabolic and biochemical activity of the cells in the body.

The results revealed that when a participant cycled lying down in the machine, their brain increased the amount of dopamine release, and that this process was linked with improved reaction time.

As part of the study, three experiments were carried out with 52 male participants overall.

In the first, individuals were asked to carry out cognitive tasks at rest and while cycling in the PET scanner, so the team could monitor the movement of dopamine in their brain.

The second used electrical muscle stimulation to test whether forced muscle movement to stimulate exercise would also improve cognitive performance.

The final experiment combined both voluntary and involuntary exercise.

In the experiments where voluntary exercise was carried out, cognitive performance improved. This was not the case when only forced electrical stimulation was used.

The team’s previous study examined the relationship between oxygen levels, cognitive performance and exercise, to test the theory that the more oxygen we breathe during a workout, the more awake our brain is. They found no change to an individual’s reaction time when cycling both inside and outside of an environment with low levels of oxygen (hypoxia).

The paper, published in The Journal of Physiology, says further studies are urgently needed to fully understand how dopamine release is linked to cognitive performance following exercise.

The authors also recognize limitations to the sample size being relatively small, and recommend more participants are needed in future experiments, from a range of populations including women and older individuals, over a longer period of time.


Soichi Ando, Toshihiko Fujimoto, Mizuki Sudo, Shoichi Watanuki, Kotaro Hiraoka, Kazuko Takeda, Yoko Takagi, Daisuke Kitajima, Kodai Mochizuki, Koki Matsuura, Yuki Katagiri, Fairuz Mohd Nasir, Yuchen Lin, Mami Fujibayashi, Joseph T. Costello, Terry McMorris, Yoichi Ishikawa, Yoshihito Funaki, Shozo Furumoto, Hiroshi Watabe, Manabu Tashiro. The neuromodulatory role of dopamine in improved reaction time by acute cardiovascular exercise. The Journal of Physiology, 2024; DOI: 10.1113/JP285173

University of Portsmouth. (2024, January 16). ‘Feel good’ hormone could explain why exercise helps boost your brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 18, 2024 from

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV from Pexels: